IN HIS ESSAY on Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that we must not fall prey to our desire to socially conform, and instead strive towards an originality and authenticity in our action and thought. To Emerson, this was a matter of living in line with one’s ‘nature.’ Something so important that he held it above all else.
“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”
Looking at history, Emerson saw swathes of great men that he felt shaped society around them. The engine through they did this was their originality and refusal to conform. He felt that these great men when shunning the desire to conform, would return to a primitive, intuitive nature, that would bring out unique solutions to the problems of living. To Emerson, this was incredibly precious because it offered an originality not yet seen in their world:
“The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
As per Aristotle, Emerson felt that the engine through which one’s original nature was brought into being was courage. He wrote: “We but half express ourselves and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” To Emerson, cowardice made a life in line with one’s nature impossible and doomed you to a life where you were the victim of the conspiracy of society.
“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
As the true nature of man is something unique to each, it is incapable due to its uniqueness to exist within the bounds of the “joint-stock” society. Men, in his mind, were something far more than names and customs, but instead beings that existed apart from one another, and would not be swayed by the pressures of others.
Emerson saw men as a force which grew in proportion to the degree to which it turned it’s back on conformity and strove towards its true nature. He saw every step towards originality as a power which grew exponentially until the result was the man who towered above society. For in not looking to conform, and in not seeking for anything beyond his internal approval, men could harness the strength of their innate natural power.
Emerson’s essay, which I recommend you read, has always hit me with force every time I’ve read it. Written, I would imagine, as a challenge to himself to live to his ideals, the essay stokes a fire within you to shun the pressures of society and imitation that you feel now and instead strive towards your own nature. Reading the essay, you can very well imagine the power of which Emerson speaks – of the unyielding, unbending nature, that will not bend to the force of any mass of people.
But when thinking about Emerson’s argument, it became apparent that something was missing, that much was assumed, and that the method chosen by Emerson would just as likely take you towards your nature as take you away from it.
After all, what exactly is our ‘nature’?
Although an attractive concept, the ideal of a true nature, real identity or genuine self is one that has struggled to be defined by people for millennia. Are you the version of yourself when you feel confident? Or are you the version of yourself who feels down? Are you the version of yourself that you picture in your head? Or are you the version of yourself that your actions lead people to perceive you as?
Like any certainty of self, Emerson’s nature is a question of identity. And like any certainty of self, Emerson’s Nature is a prison.
Identity is difficult to pin down. What could seem like a fixed truth may well just be an illusion composed of our psychological needs, weaknesses, and beliefs, as well as our physiological needs and weaknesses. This is, of course, to say nothing of inherent biology, and the role of chance.
How do we experience identity? If you’re honest with yourself, do you really identify with a true and essential form of yourself, or do you spend most of your day pursuing your fluctuating wants and feelings? Do you connect with an idea of who you are? And if so, where does that idea come from? Is it in fact who you really are, or is it rather an attempt to escape who you don’t want to be?
The question of our nature doesn’t have an answer beyond relying on faith (incidentally, Christianity was a huge influence on Emerson), and its vagueness leads you down paths that may not be all that they promise.
If our identity seems to be defined by random wants and emotions, then our nature, one would imagine, would be the choices we make from that foundation. True nature, by extension then, would be making the true choice, or the right choice, in the present moment.
From this standpoint, Emerson’s rejection of conformity makes sense, as that’s just another influence that may take us away from the right choice.
But where Emerson proposes a nature that is essential to who we are, I suggest that who we are might not be all the easy to perceive. Where Emerson rightly says that we should not seek for things externally, I argue that we should be cautious of what we attach value to internally.
After all, self-reliance only works when we understand what is the true thing to be reliant to. Without an understanding of how our choices are made, why they are made and what the right choice is, we are doomed to make the wrong one – and if we believe that is our ‘true nature’ then we are confining ourselves to a false life.
I have written before about the importance of courage in bringing yourself into being, and I still believe it is among the most important traits you can develop. Without it, you are left with a life that is constrained by the drivers of fear and anxiety. A courageous life offers freedom from this.
But more important than courage is self-awareness. Without which you can never perceive yourself or by extension the world correctly. Without self-awareness, you are deluded, and if you are deluded then any self-reliant, courageous act only strives the bring you further away from what it is that you actually are. And just as Emerson argues that living within your nature magnifies its power, I argue that being true to a deluded nature only magnifies your delusion and your attachment to it.
We cannot be reliant on ourselves as long as we cannot understand the ways in which our own identity operates. Once we can navigate our identity, and arrive at the right choice, then courageous self-reliance will bring our nature – our original, unique nature – into being.
This isn’t just an argument against Emerson, but an argument about self-help in general, of which, ironically, he was the father.
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